A CONGREGATION has been forced to move and shut its homeless shelter after their Christmas was turned upside down when their church was devastated in a suspected arson.

Heaton Park Methodist Church was targeted on Saturday when offenders smashed their way in by breaking windows and fled the scene with valuables, shortly before the fire started.

Fire ravaged the building, which only recently celebrated its 90th anniversary, causing significant damage expected to require expensive repairs.

The church’s minister, Reverend Jez Hackett, said: “It was devastating when we first realised what had happened ­— particularly for the congregation, because some of them have been here all their lives.

“It’s not something that you would ever want to happen to your church at any time of year, but especially not at Christmas.”

All services have now been cancelled at the church for the foreseeable, and the congregation is to temporarily merge with Prestwich Methodist Church.

The combined congregations will hold a Midnight Communion from 11pm tonight, and Christmas Day all age service from 10.30am tomorrow, at the church in Chapel Street, Prestwich.

Heaton Park Methodist Church has also been forced to close its refuge shelter for the homeless and other vulnerable members of the community, and move it temporarily to Radcliffe.

While its lunch club for school children is still looking for an interim home.

However since the incident Rev. Hackett says the church has been inundated with “wonderful” messages and offers of help and support from members of the community.

Rev. Hackett said: “It has in some ways been good to see the community spirit and that has helped.”

He added: “We have really good links with other churches, particularly Prestwich Methodist Church and it’s giving us an opportunity to look at them again. So we are moving our services there and joining our congregations together.

“In the long term the fire shouldn’t have too much of an effect because a church is the people rather than the building and the building just facilitates what we do.”

Also optimistic about the church’s future is John Potter, aged 80, from Prestwich, who has been a a lifelong member of the church’s congregation.

He said: “Initially we felt devastated, but looking to the future I think we can look on the bright side.

“Once we have put everything back to normal then hopefully we can carry on as we have been doing, continuing to serve God and the community.”

Fire crews and police were called to the church in Bury Old Road at around 8pm on December 22, and a joint investigation into the cause of the fire is underway between the two bodies.

The blaze principally affected a prayer room, adjoined to the church’s altar, although there was also smoke damage, including to the chancel.

A Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service spokesman confirmed that among the signs of break in were numerous broken windows and damage to internal doors.

He also noted that there were possible traces of blood discovered at the scene, which were taken by Greater Manchester Police.

It is believed that the burglars had been searching for valuable items to take when the fire started by as yet unknown means. They then fled the scene, stealing a laptop and projector.

Chief Inspector Jamie Collins, of GMP’s Bury borough, said: “There’s no way to describe the offenders actions, other than to say they were disgusting.

“To break into a church, set a fire and then steal valuables would be bad enough any other time of the year but to do it a few days before Christmas, which is a time when many people turn to their church, is nothing short of disgusting.

“I know this incident will cause a lot of upset locally but I want to reassure the people of Bury that we are treating this as a priority and we are liaising closely with the GMFRS to establish exactly what has happened to cause the fire.

“However, we still need the public’s help to find those responsible. If you believe that you can help us find them then please contact the police as a matter of urgency. We simply cannot tolerate this kind of behaviour.”

Anybody with information should contact police on 0161 856 8172 or Crimestoppers, anonymously, on 0800 555 111.